Chuck Yeager Breaks the Sound Barrier (1947)
Days before becoming the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound, Yeager, a US Air Force test pilot, broke two ribs riding a horse. Afraid of being taken off the mission, he kept his injury a secret, even though it limited his movement so much that he had to reach with a broom handle to close the hatch on the X-1 experimental aircraft. Launched mid-air from a modified bomber, the X-1 broke the sound barrier, and Yeager became a legend. How fast was he flying when he went supersonic? More… Discuss
Chuck Yeager is unquestionably the most famous test pilot of all time. He won a permanent place in the history of aviation as the first pilot ever to fly faster than the speed of sound, but that is only one of the remarkable feats this pilot performed in service to his country.
Charles Elwood Yeager was born in 1923 in Myra, West Virginia and grew up in the nearby village of Hamlin. Immediately upon graduation from high school he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps to serve in World War II.
Shot down over enemy territory only one day after his first kill in 1943, Yeager evaded capture, and with the aid of the French resistance, made his way across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. Although army policy prohibited his return to combat flight, Yeager personally appealed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and was allowed to fly combat missions again. In all, he flew 64 combat missions in World War II. On one occasion he shot down a German jet from a prop plane. By war’s end he had downed 13 enemy aircraft, five in a single day.
After the war, Yeager continued to serve the newly constituted United States Air Force as a flight instructor and test pilot. In 1947, he was assigned to test the rocket-powered X-1 fighter plane. At the time, no one knew if a fixed-wing aircraft could fly faster than sound, or if a human pilot could survive the experience. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, only days after cracking several ribs in a horseback riding accident. In 1952, he set a new air speed record of 1650 mph, more than twice the speed of sound.
In 1963, Yeager was flying the experimental Lockheed Starfighter at over twice the speed of sound when the engine shut off and he was forced to abandon the spinning aircraft. Yeager’s compression suit was set on fire by the burning debris from the ejector seat, which became entangled in his parachute. He survived the fall, but required extensive skin grafts for his burns.
A bestselling nonfiction book, The Right Stuff (1979) by Tom Wolfe, and the popular film of the same title (1983), made Yeager’s name a household word among Americans too young to remember Yeager’s exploits of the 1950s. Yeager’s autobiography enjoyed phenomenal success and he remains much in demand on the lecture circuit and as a corporate spokesman. Chuck Yeager made his last flight as a military consultant on October 14, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his history-making flight in the X-1. He observed the occasion by once again breaking the sound barrier, this time in an F-15 fighter.